It’s always sunny in Philadelphia, but, surprisingly, not always in Madras. Despite the fact that feels-like-102 F “summer came back” in February, there are days when I’m pretty sure I have one of those giant cartoon storm clouds over my head, ready to throw a thunderbolt.
I’m going to be totally candid here, lest some of you think that my time in India is some giant gallivant around Chennai with glitter and voluntouristic pompoms. Some days things, quite honestly, feel like I’m going nowhere. Because, though the shiny newness of being an American “foreigner” has rubbed off for me, occasionally my Indian students still very much see me as some funny-looking didi who is there for Exciting Not-Learning!
Like when I come into class with a carefully thought-out lesson and my students, accustomed to days when people would let them play Hangman and Thumbs Up (the latter of which teaches actually zero English since you have to be silent the entire time?), beg “Miiiiisssss, new game, miiiiissss, Thumbs Up, pleeeease,” with the Tamilian bargaining gesture, like they’re auto drivers trying to swindle me out of another ten rupees. Or when I have to repeat my directions one too many times because four girls in the back have been copying gym homework (yes, we have that here, with books and everything) in the back corner. Or when I walk in to my “notorious” class, which is wholly comprised of 44 girls who are either brand new to the school or are “reckless characters” (because THAT was a good idea), and the ringleader of the NoToRiOuS GURLz tells me, “Ma’am, can we just sit today? We are so bored of school all day. We will just sit and not work this period.” (**this particular girl did find herself sitting that period. Out in the hallway. Alone.)
And actual craziness, not like endearing Zooey Deschanel “zany” antics, is an everyday occurrence here. Here’s a scene from this week’s episode of “My Life is a Sitcom: the Bailey Betik Story”:
11th Grade Student: “Ma’am, we told our commerce ma’am that you will be helping us 6th, 7th, and 8th period for choreographing the Hindi dance. We have to finish it today.”
Hindi Miss: “Oh, today you will take 6th period for substitution. I do not want to take class today. Too much work. You will take three classes. Not that many girls, only 70 girls.”
Another 11th Grade Student: “We also told computer science ma’am that you will supervise us while we surf the net for our Tamil song. Oh, 6th period.”
Me, to all three: “But I have to teach class during 6th period.”
Hindi Miss and 11th Grade Students: “They don’t need class, just bring them all down.”
-Cut to montage of me, trying to monitor my own class’s work, make sure two girls on a laptop aren’t illegally downloading Kollywood films, and teach six girls Bollywood choreography in a non-AC computer lab, with approximately 90 students overflowing from twelve wooden desk rows behind us, telling me that it is too hot and they want to go home-
There are days when I get tired of hearing Urdu-Tamil-English snatches of teachers, whether compliment or conjecture, discussing me as if I’m not in the room; when I cannot deal with girls half my age ask me to sing Selena Gomez on command for them like I am nothing more than a novelty toy; when it is so frustrating it takes everything in me not to slam the door on the class and walk out of the school without ever looking back.
There are days when I doubt the heck out of myself, what I’m doing, whether it’s worth it. When I wonder if I’m even making a semblance of an impact by teaching them similes and storytelling. When I wonder what I left behind. Why I put my Texas and grad school lives on pause to show up every day prepared for classes half-attended because the other members are still sauntering the grounds drinking mango juice, despite it not being break time. When I use my break period to find the one place in the school where no one can find me, an old broken bench behind the building where even the kalas don’t venture, and hope my friends back home are still awake so I can get a fix of anything back home–a quick rundown of a football score, a Snapchat from my littles, a voice memo telling me about a hilarious blind date gone wrong. “I’m twenty-two,” I remind myself. “Why did I think I could change the world?”
I am here. These are bad days. They feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. They happen to everyone, in every country, in every city, in every school. And I am, and you are, allowed to have them. You are allowed to say them out loud.
I try to break it to them easily.
“Okay, let’s talk about critical thinking and reasoning. Critical thinking is when we challenge a statement, push it further. So if you told your mother that you wanted to leave and go to see the new Rajinikanth movie at 11pm on a Tuesday night, what do you think she would ask you?”
–“My mother would ask me ‘nee paithiyamaa?’”
–“Ai, we already know you’re crazy, Zuwana.”
“Why! Ma’am! she would ask, ‘Why?'”
“Right, so critical thinking is when we ask why. Then, what would you say to her?”
“BECAUSE I WANT TO BECAUSE MY FRIENDS ARE GOING.”
“What does that start with?”
“Okay, so reasons are ‘becauses.’ But there can be good reasons and bad reasons. Do you think ‘BECAUSE I WANT TO BECAUSE MY FRIENDS ARE GOING’ is a good reason?”
“So then what do you think she would say to that reason?”
“OKAY, SO WHAT?”
“Right.” Beat. “So let’s try a real life situation. I am leaving India on March 31st.”
–“YOU ARE NOT LEAVING.”
–“THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE SITUATION.”
“NO. THERE IS NO BECAUSE.”
“Because I have to go back for my higher studies.”
Beat. “SO WHAT???”
“Stay here and marry my cousin-brother. Become a class teacher. Come back for us when we are in seventh and eighth and ninth and tenth standards. We will not let you leave. We will take your passport. We will cancel your flight. We cannot let you go, Bailey Ma’am.”
There are days when I miss them already, when my throat tightens against my wishes and I have to count to three before speaking so that I don’t break down in the middle of the prayer hall. When I walk into a classroom, and they cheer, and someone has written “WELCOME, BAILEY MA’AM” in pink lettering, like I wasn’t just there the day before. When girls who don’t normally speak up in class start participating in a class debate, fervently defending why the tiger should be India’s national animal. When after a class has to do Minute of Silence for being too noisy, I return the next day to forty-seven apology letters stacked neatly on my desk.
When, after asking me “how many boyfriends I have” (L. O. L.) one of my teachers turns to another and says, “Bailey has a nice life.” There are days where it is the easiest thing in the whole freaking world to agree. When I’m asked to sing an English-Tamil version of “Let It Go” for three thousand people and feel like a rock star when the audience roars so loud I can’t hear my heartbeat. When I come to class and almost everyone has brought the drama project I assigned them last time. When, after I tell my sixth graders to keep their list of ten comparisons (“1. Delhi is more polluted than Chennai. 2. Chennai is the best city in India.”) with them, one girl comes to class and says, “I wanted to practice them some more, so I have sixty-three.”
There are days when I visit an ACCESS class after an already-long day of teaching and somehow end up watching 40 eighteen-year-old boys sing along to the “My Heart Will Go On” music video. When a teacher looks my sari up and down, compares it to another teacher’s, and says, “Peerma Ma’am, even Bailey ties her sari like a better Indian than you,” or when my supervising teacher brings me a tin of sweet pongal for breakfast. When I begin another mural, and the most prim and proper Arabic teacher in the school asks if she can paint with me, in full burqa. When a group from my 8A class stops me to tell me that the Great Women project we just began is their favorite thing they’ve ever learned in school.
I am here. These are good days. They feel like Eskimo kisses. They happen to everyone, in any country, in any city, in any school. And I am, and you are, allowed–encouraged, beyond belief–to shout them as loud as you possibly can.
Unless you’re talking about the Beyonce song, I’ve never been good at countdowns.
I had friends in high school and college who had them set up in apps on their phone, to wake them up every morning with reminders about everything from “154 days until the Miley concert” to the more blaring alarm of “2 days until graduation,” each with corresponding numbers of !!!’s according to the situation’s direness. It seemed to work for them– they’d get so excited as it loomed near, leaning to whisper in sorority chapter meeting, “GUESS WHAT. four days until the new Channing Tatum movie comes out!” “Only 27 days till my birthday!”
I tried to count down once. What I was counting down to, I don’t remember, mainly because then, of course, I quickly devolved into setting them for almost every single event in my life, and then I woke to “6 DAYS UNTIL DINNER WITH MADDIE AND 5 UNTIL RASHAUN’S SHOW AND 4 DAYS TILL GIVING PANEL DECISIONS AND 3 UNTIL NIGHT CLASS AND 2 UNTIL REHEARSAL AND 1 UNTIL I GO TO TARGET BECAUSE MY LIPSTICK RAN OUT.” So, what most people would call a calendar.
I can’t do it. Maybe it’s because I try to focus so much on little things that I tend to downplay the Big Things. Maybe because deep down I think I’ll feel disappointed once I get to a Big Thing I’ve been counting down to. Like it’ll end up being something that I didn’t need to build up. Countdowns to me are a destination, a geographic place in my mind; like, I’m excited to go to Australia, but I’ve never been. What if when the day gets here and my plane lands, it’s not what I hoped it would be? Or what if I’m so focused on Australia that I’m completely bummed when my flight is delayed for a 24-hour layover in Hawai’i? (This is obvs a metaphor, I’m not going to Australia.) Then I feel like I’m cheating on days, like one means something to me and the other doesn’t. Like my “Day in Hawai’i!” isn’t worth setting an alarm for, since it’s already “Only One Day Until Australia!!!”
Like it’s a placeholder. Like that day hasn’t been waiting its entire life to meet me.
Factually, depending on your timezone, at this moment I have fifty-three days left in India. This will be my last post, probably; I will most likely not be posting about the Day of the Countdown–partially because 1) I’ll be on a plane, 2) I’m giving up social media for Lent (whaaat), and 3) as we established in my previous blog post, denial. (Because no one wants to be that girl bawling “WHYYYY” out the airplane window and reaching longingly for Chennai as it fades in the distance, and because a blog post would reduce me to That Girl.) I also refuse to believe that I’m saying goodbye to India, because I have one of those gut feelings I’ll be back someday. (Plus the pandit at Esha’s wedding told me I’d “always return to Madras,” and he seemed like a pretty reputable guy.)
Theoretically, if you accept the end of a countdown, the “then,” as a destination, and “now” as a “here,” then you accept the in-between, that state of liminality between now and then, as physically existing as well. Because that’s where I’m at on the map right now, and where I’ve been for the last few months, somewhere in that in-between–and dear, precious, future Fulbrighter, please, if you get nothing else from these ramblings, if you are reading this somewhere in the future, an ETAship is always going to be an in-between, and not always a nice and easy one.
I am somewhere in between meaningful cultural understanding and conversations that focus only on differences. Somewhere in between “Yes, you are one of us!” and “…but we’re still going to use your chair in the staff room for our bags.” In between speaking Tamil to a waiter and the same waiter raising an eyebrow at my complexion and telling me, “Oh no, ma’am…that’ll be too spicy for you.” Physically between places, lots of them– Delhi and Kolkata and Varanasi and Mumbai and Goa and Bangalore (which I usually don’t blog about so as to avoid being that tour guide blogger person who tells you Everything They Did on Their Trip Down to the Minute, so I’ll put some pictures at the bottom, compromise). In between the crazy sitcom moments that are bound to happen, like when I take a “diversion route” to avoid traffic but end up still sitting in even worse traffic for an hour, or when get stopped by the Kolkata American Center security because “tampons are suspicious, wrapped objects.” Between the gap of understanding that happens when I tell my teacher I’ve found a script for the play, and then arriving the next day to find she has already “cast” (read: chosen her favorite students for) the theatrical masterpiece “Girlz in da Hood: a Gangster Little Red Riding Hoodie.” Straddling the line of Fort Worth and Fulbright and reaching for Future, and still not knowing where that is. (What will this blog be three months from now–From Sunflowers to Samosas to Scotland? To Shamrocks? To Snowcaps? To Smithsonian?)
But there are great in-betweens, too, in defense of optimism; the chiaroscuro of the light places you can’t see without noticing the dark places, and the dark places that make the light ones all the sweeter. The in-between of not knowingness, whether it’s learning how to perform salah or getting the foreign forgiveness of “girls, you are being too loud–oh, this is Bailey Ma’am’s class, carry on.” The in-between of teacher and foreigner, which allows me to blur the lines of Professional Ma’am and choreograph Bollywood graduation dances, or bring a ukulele to teach “Aloha Oe,” or, when one girl complains that “we only read about boys in our social text,” assign a Fifty Great Women project and INSIST that we will present these at morning assembly. And they are worth all of the bad things, times a hundred, times a thousand.
Fifty-three chances. For better or for worse or for all the in-betweens, I don’t want placeholder days.